Thursday, October 27, 2011

Francesca Lia Block: Pretty in Pink (Smog)

Imagine my surprise when Francesca Lia Block enrolled in my online screenwriting course. I don’t usually get students who are well-known authors. Back in 1989, Francesca shook up the staid world of Young Adult fiction when she published Weetzie Bat, a simultaneously lurid and romantic novel about young punks in old Hollywood. I’ve heard librarians refer to Weetzie Bat as “a modern classic.” Since its publication, she has written a host of other books, most set in a gaudy, glittering version of L.A. that is a hipster’s paradise. Coming up next year is the latest entry in the Weetzie Bat saga, Pink Smog.

Still, despite all her success as a novelist, Francesca wanted to work on her screenwriting chops, with the goal of adapting the original Weetzie Bat story -- now called Dangerous Angels -- for the screen. I hadn’t realized until we chatted recently that movie-making has always been her secret love. Trouble is: all she knows how to do was write. So she decided at an early age, “If I just make these movies in my head, and write them down, it’s almost as good.”

Francesca came by her passion for movies naturally. Her mother’s mother had written for radio, then came out to Hollywood for a screenwriting career that ended in broken promises. Her father, Irving Block, had better luck. He contributed visual effects to a host of Fifties sci-fi flicks, even creating Robby the Robot for Forbidden Planet. There’s a Roger Corman connection too: Block was a writer and co-producer on War of the Satellites, Roger’s quickie response to the launch of Sputnik.

Francesca herself grew up amid the suburban sprawl of the San Fernando Valley. Craving excitement, she and her friends would drive over Laurel Canyon into Hollywood, where she found her own Land of Oz by way of Marilyn Monroe, pink sunsets, bougainvillea, and the Hollywood Sign. Along with Old Hollywood, she also discovered the New Punk Hollywood of the 1980s: “That’s the sensibility that formed Weetzie Bat.”

But translating Weetzie and her friends to the silver screen has not been easy. The material has been optioned by some of the biggest names in town (think Spielberg), but somehow the project has never come to fruition. Determined to write the screenplay herself, Francesca has revised her version “hundreds and hundreds of times,” which is how she ended up in my rewrite class. (She was a diligent student, unfailingly gracious to classmates with a lot less experience and talent.) Alas, Hollywood producer-types can’t seem to see the world through her eyes. Trying to define her aesthetic, she’s prone to refer to Juliet of the Spirits, a film few Hollywood honchos remember. What she craves is a blend of “Felliniesque, over-the-top, saturated-color, beautiful romantic vision with this very dark, gritty, punk-rock, hand-held camera, club-scene vision . . . Those two things – to me they go together perfectly.” But no one seems to understand.

A dedicated Angeleno, Francesca praises films like L.A. Story and (500) Days of Summer that capture the landscape she knows so well. Nonetheless, she can’t think of a single movie that shows her own private Shangri-LA. Director Catherine Hardwicke, trying to help her launch a Weetzie Bat film, advised her to pare down any scenes set in Hollywood and eliminate any references to the Eighties as a way of saving on expensive locations and period costumes. Good advice, but not something Francesca can accept, because in her work “the city becomes a character. You lose a whole character if you don’t pay attention to that stuff.”

(Photo credit by Maria Andreotti)


  1. I agree that from what I remember of the books, the look and feel of LA is very important -- not something to be pared down or moved to another decade.

  2. A New York Times book reviewer paid Francesca the ultimate compliment: “Block writes about the real Los Angeles better than anyone since Raymond Chandler.” I feel she certainly doesn't deal with everyday L.A. in her books, but she captures something of the city as it permeates our dreams. Personally, I'm proud to have her represent native Angelenos like me.

  3. I haven't read any of the books - but anything taking place in the 80's in Hollywood is of interest - off to Amazon I go again!

  4. I'd love to get your reaction, Craig. Francesca's outlook isn't for everyone, but her fans are passionate. I'm glad you're checking out her writing. (Hey, I should get a cut of her royalties!)